Q&A: Lego Star Wars producer Jonathan Smith

TT Games exec talks to GameSpot about the creative process of Lego Star Wars, the new Lego game, and why he thinks that making games for kids means making games that everyone will love.

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Jonathan Smith is the head of production at UK-based TT Games Publishing, a company established in 2005 after a merger between publisher Giant Interactive and developer Traveller's Tales. Smith established Giant in 2004 along with managing director Tom Stone.

Titles in its portfolio include Lego Star Wars, Super Monkey Ball Adventure, Finding Nemo, Crash Twinsanity, WRC, and Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. The company specialises in trying to make games that sell well and that appeal to kids and families.

After the success of the two Lego Star Wars games, the company has confirmed that it will be working on more Lego projects, although it coyly refuses to name what these future titles may be.

GameSpot sat down with Jonathan Smith for a chat after he gave a sold-out talk at the Game On exhibition at London's Science Museum.

GameSpot UK: Lego Star Wars is a kids' game that also appeals to adults. Do you think a lot of kids' games are too childish?

Jonathan Smith: I think that a game that is made for children, which children genuinely enjoy, will also be enjoyed by older players as well, because it will appeal to the child in us all. The more you make games for an 8-year-old boy, the more you'll make a game for everyone. That's what we found with Lego Star Wars. Everything that we did in that game that we did for children we enjoyed ourselves as well. This took us in directions where, as gamers and designers, we found ourselves creating new things, which older players, set in their ways, overexposed to conventions may not notice.

Children, who are fresher, with new eyes, more impatient, and with better things to do, are great guiding lights for innovation. I think childishness can be a good thing, [although it] has a bit of a negative connotation, which I think is attached to a lack of substance, and that's where issues appear in games. The capabilities of an 8-year-old as a gamer are being severely underestimated [in kids' games].

GSUK: Were you surprised at the success of the Lego Star Wars games?

JS: We never thought that the games would reach as big an audience as they have. We knew at the end that it was a game that we were proud of, that we were proud to play and proud for our friends to play. But, the relationship between a game that you personally like and a game that's going to be successful in the market is unpredictable. There are a lot of factors that affect overall success, so while we were proud of what we'd done, the actual success actually was definitely a pleasant surprise.

GSUK: Do you think games should have more humour in them?

JS: Well, we take humour very seriously! There are lots of different games, and there are lots of different ways of making games, and people want different things out of a gaming experience. For us, we find we do our best work when we're really enjoying ourselves, and we enjoy ourselves most when there's humour involved.

GSUK: What movies do you think would definitely not work as a Lego game?

JS: (Laughs) One of the amazing things about Lego is that it can be literally anything. You would be surprised at some of the things that you could do by putting Lego together with the most seemingly inappropriate things. It can lead to some real creative opportunities. It is hard to imagine the commercial viability of a number of potential Lego games.

GSUK: What didn't make it to the final version of the LSW game?

JS: It took two years to make the game, and six months before the end of it, we realised that we were never going to make vehicle levels work. We always planned to have a lot of vehicle and space-based combat in the game, but we never, ever got it to work. We threw a lot of stuff away. We'd have things like arbitrary aliens blocking the road and you have to go and bring them things to make them move. [That kind of stuff] just shouldn't be there in the first place. Trying to make things good is a really, really dangerous path. They should be good from the start.

GSUK: Were there any ideas that came before it?

JS: We made a game called Lego Soccer Adventure, which never came out. It was a test. We started thinking about things that we could do with Lego that had never been done before. The game was basically a series of fantasy environments, and you kick the ball at things to make things happen, avoid animated creatures and tackles from enemies. You never die in the game; you just lose the ball. Dying and then having to go back and do things again and again and again, that's something that we decided we wanted to do differently. In the end, however, we just couldn't justify the amount of money it would cost to make that game.

GSUK: Who came up with the idea for Lego Star Wars?

JS: That was Tom Stone. He said that the idea of a Lego game sounded great but it needed something more. What it needed was characters and a story, and what better characters and story than the world's favourite in Star Wars? It seems obvious now, but back then we would go into meetings and say Lego Star Wars and people would just shake their heads [in confusion]. But it was a brilliant idea, and we didn't screw it up. Which is harder than you'd think.

GSUK: Why wasn't there more online content for the Xbox 360 in Lego Star Wars II?

JS: On the Xbox 360, you can download additional characters, but yes, from a co-op point of view you can't. The two-player experience was an important part of the original concept for LSW and LSWII. And for us, it was always essential to our idea of the game that it would be for two players, and for us that experience is all about the living room. It's about family members, brothers and sisters, and friends playing together, and we know that that works, because that's how we play.

An online game has different dynamics, and [with] LSWII we wanted to concentrate on that offline experience because it's hard to do that well. There are all kinds of considerations in the design and layout in the actual execution of the game that we needed to focus on, and also we wanted to develop from Lego Star Wars. We didn't get it perfectly right in LSW, and there were lots of ways that we wanted to develop that offline and we wanted to concentrate on that. Also speaking frankly, we've been impressed by how prevalent a part of the Xbox 360 gaming experience the Live platform has been right from the start. As gamers ourselves, we've played on Xbox Live, on the original Xbox, and it was cool, but on 360 from day one, with achievements, with downloadable content, with the demos, and with the way that broadband penetration has moved on since then, it's just been much more a part of the core 360 game experience than we had expected.

GSUK: Are you going to use XBL more in the next game(s)?

JS: That could be something very, very interesting.

GSUK: How would you respond to criticism of the portable versions of the LSWII games?

JS: I think the PSP version was really good. (Pauses) I'm afraid I really don't have a good answer.

GSUK: Lego Star Wars was a unique take on a movie licence. How do you feel about the avalanche of "same old, same old" movie tie-ins out at the moment?

JS: The evidence is that it's really hard to do well. I wouldn't categorise it as a lack of imagination or a lack of desire or a lack of talent. I love working in the video games business because everyone I meet [in this industry] is terrific, and possessed with drive and smarts and they're gamers. And you know, no one sets out to make anything other than a great game. It's just really hard. I think working with films can make it particularly hard. Primarily this is because of the time constraints that are put upon the developer.

Two reasons, normally the film developer is green-lit at such a point relative to the final release that gives people less time than they would normally like to make a game, which kind of sets you off on the wrong foot. And also that release date is usually inflexible because of the commitments that are made from the marketing point of view and because of the commercial opportunity that exists around the launch of the film--you don't know if it's going to be successful or not so you have to maximise sales at the date of release. That means you don't have the luxury of risking getting yourself in a position where you need to redo things to a very great extent.

GSUK: You said in your talk that the best thing developers wanting to make a great game should do is test it out on an 8-year-old boy. So what do 8-year-olds like and dislike about games?

JS: They like moving forward in a game. They like funny things happening in a game when they press buttons. They love, more than you can possibly believe, cheats. Actually some of the things that are features in Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars II particularly with free play and the character switching and character customiser could be cheats, but wherever we've thought of something like that we've tried to make it a game feature. They dislike waiting for anything, and the universal phrase is that if something is too difficult, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's too challenging, it means that they don't understand what they're being asked to do, and what the effects of the actions that they are taking in order to try and overcome that challenge are, and that's almost universally a problem with information. The game designer is asking something from them, but they're not asking the kids clearly enough and not giving appropriate feedback to their attempts to overcome the challenge. It's rarely a skill difficulty.

GSUK: Are you working on Lego Batman?

JS: We are definitely...working on more Lego licence games. We are working on another Lego project right now, but these things have to be announced at the right time. Sorry I can't give you more info.

GSUK: Is there anything you'd like to add?

JS: The credit for all the games is shared by every individual who contributed, almost all of whom are part of Traveller's Tales. It's not all about me. I'm just the spokesperson.

GSUK: Many thanks for your time.

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